Austria Takes Bold Steps to Combat International Espionage

Written by Camilla Jessen

Apr.04 - 2024 1:36 PM CET

Austria aims to close legal loopholes that have made the country a covert playground for international spies.

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Austria is set to overhaul its espionage legislation, with Justice Minister Alma Zadic leading the charge to address legal loopholes that have long allowed foreign intelligence operations to flourish on Austrian soil, particularly against international organizations. This legislative initiative gains momentum in the wake of recent espionage scandals that have spotlighted Austria's role as an unwitting host to global spy activities.

A Legal Blind Spot Exposed

Historically, Austria's laws have strictly tackled espionage that directly threatens its national security. However, activities targeting other nations or international bodies headquartered in Austria, such as the United Nations, have navigated through the cracks of the legal system.

According to the minister's statement, as reported by the Associated Press, the current plan aims to amend this oversight, which has notably dubbed Vienna an "island of peace" for international espionage.

"Gaps in the law still allow foreign special services to spy with impunity in Austria," Zadic stated.

The call for reform is partially driven by the arrest of a former Austrian intelligence officer accused of spying for Russia. This incident not only shed light on Austria's vulnerabilities but also on the broader implications of espionage within its borders, affecting key international players.

"We want to expand the paragraphs on espionage so that in the future our law enforcement agencies can act against foreign spies when their activities do not concern Austria itself, but international organizations based here, such as the UN," she said.

Bridging the Gap

Zadic's proposal involves broadening the existing legal framework on espionage to enable Austrian law enforcement to target foreign spies focusing on the numerous international organizations headquartered in Vienna. This initiative aims to ensure that Austria's policy of neutrality does not unintentionally act as a cover for espionage activities.

Interior Minister Gerhard Karner, in an interview with Oe1 radio, supported the call for harsher penalties against espionage, introducing a layer of controversy by advocating for the surveillance of communications via instant messaging platforms—a stance opposed by the Green Party, to which Zadic belongs.

A Neutral Ground No More?

Austria's longstanding commitment to military neutrality has in the past made Vienna a key diplomatic center, home to entities such as the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). However, this neutral status has inadvertently rendered it an attractive setting for clandestine activities by foreign intelligence services.

The recent assembly of Austria's National Security Council was prompted by the arrest of Egisto Ott, a former employee of the now-dissolved Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Combating Terrorism (BVT), on charges of espionage.

The Vienna prosecutor's office has been investigating Ott since 2017 for abuse of office, conducting espionage to Austria's detriment, and breaching state secrets.

Following the emergence of evidence that Ott had relayed data from the mobile phones of high-ranking Austrian officials to Russian spies, he was arrested. Media reports have also connected Ott with Jan Marsalek, a former Wirecard board member currently believed to be in Russia. Ott is suspected of aiding Marsalek in establishing a spy network for Russia within the BVT. He, together with the former BVT chief Martin Weiss, is accused of gathering information for Marsalek and Russia based on their previous activities.

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